By Milad Korkis Syriac journalist
When we discuss culture in Syria, there are no major cultural differences between Christian Syrians and the broader Syrian society.
Cultural differences mostly arise from religious differences visible in social events where the participants are Christians and often offer alcoholic beverages unlike what is prevalent among most Arab communities because alcoholic beverages are forbidden by Islamic law.
Although the law of circumcision is considered to be abolished in the New Testament and Churches do not commit their followers to circumcision, like the Muslims, Christians in Syria often circumcise their males. Also, Christians colloquially use the word Allah to refer to the God they worship.
In Syria, Christian Syrians celebrate Christmas on December 25th. It is associated with public Christmas decorations and trees where figures depict the nativity scene with the baby Jesus, Mother Mary, Joseph the carpenter, the shepherds and the three Wise Men. This tradition and these customs came from the West but have become an integral part of the general tradition of Christmas, just like handing out gifts to children by the character of Santa Claus.
The near-Christmas holiday is New Year’s Eve and many non-Christian families celebrate it but it keeps a Christian specialty.
Easter, preceded by the Passion Week and linked to the death and resurrection of Christ according to Christian beliefs, is a major event. There are other less important festivals and some of them are region specific. For example, on the Feast of St. Barbara on December 4th in Syria masquerade parties are held, and in Saidnaya in the Damascus countryside there are big celebrations with bonfires on mountain heads on the Day of the Cross, a tradition inherited from the fourth century.
The city of Damascus is divided into two parts, one of which is Old Damascus and the other is New Damascus. Old Damascus is known as the oldest inhabited city in the world and famous for its many monuments. When pointing out the most important Christian religious monuments in Syria, the Church of St. John the Baptist needs to be mentioned. This church was converted into a mosque and is now the Omayyad Mosque in old Damascus City.
The “Great Mosque of the Omayyad” is said to be built on the site of the Aramaic temple of the god Haddad, which dates back to the beginning of the first millennium BC. The Roman temple of the god Jupiter of Damascus was built on top of it in the 3rd century AD, and the Christian Byzantines built the church of St. of John the Baptist in the same site in the late 4th century AD.
The Christian community in Syria is especially concentrated in the Wadi al-Nasara (“Valley of the Christians”), in the Syrian interior between Hama and Homs, and bordering Lebanon. Wadi al-Nasara has many monasteries and ancient churches, including some carved out in mountains and underground. The most important one is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Elias and St. Gerges near the Krak des Chevaliers. The majority of the inhabitants of the Valley of the Christians speak Arabic after their Syriac identity was eliminated by the spread of Arab Muslims.
To be continued…